Submitted

Happy SealI am at the pinnacle of exhaustion.

I stayed up after 3 am last night, putting the final checks and proofs on the novel draft. After that I penned a letter explaining some of the changes as well as presenting some ideas for the sequel, and fired them both off to the stakeholders.

And yes, I still have work today.

But even as I laid down in bed last night, I couldn’t help but feel ambivalence, a sense of both incredible elation and odd restless. On one hand, I was ecstatic my efforts had finished. But at the same time, it was only partial closure. There are unfinished stories. Sure, they’re at a great stopping point, but the tale isn’t complete.

And I know that trying to conclude them is going to open more threads. More characters to meet, more adventures to explore. If the sequel is given the green light, I already have enough material for a book no less the size of the first… and a tense plot that could overtake the quality of the earlier installment.

Is this what drives professional authors? The Zeigarnik Effect of “what happens next?” It wasn’t even just another novel. As I walked into the office, an idea for a short story popped into my head. Returning to shorts would be a fantastic break from crafting another book.

But first I have promises to myself I have to keep. My health has not been my priority as of late, and I have a few extra pounds I need to shuck. I need to start hitting the gym again and getting more sleep. I also have a horror anthology to finish putting together, though with three or four months and the manuscripts already written, that won’t be as demanding.

One way or the other, time for a mental vacation.

Spicing Prose, Final Fantasy VII and Shenmue III, Oh My…

Just a quick plug: Superhero Monster Hunter: The Good Fight from Emby Press has been released for Kindle (and is expected to be print a little later), which contains the origin tales for the forthcoming Outliers universe. Expect a more formal announcement with the upcoming catalog for the summer season.

Sutton_Hoo_helmet_reconstructedOn Monday the 15th of June, I wrapped up the last major edits for the novel. For this round, anyway…

The work still isn’t complete but I can count the number of hours it requires with one hand. A beta reader has been providing invaluable input and is only seven chapters from completing the entire book.

However I discovered a slight problem. I’ve been tracking ratios and numbers of superfluously applied words and realized that “glance,” “look,” “up”, “gaze” and “upon” were serious offenders, often being cited almost a hundred times. “Eyes” too. I’m a huge proponent of body language during dialogue, although I recognize that not everyone is attentive to subtle hints. The next time I juggle multiple characters, I’ll probably adjust the passages involving facial expressions and gestures to reflect how observant the POV character is of people.

I spent two hours last night undergoing a process I’ll call a “Thesaurus Spicing.” But it’s not enough to locate and replace every other use of those words; I also had to check if I repeated the same phrase on a page and decide how often I can tolerate their re-occurrence. Once every three to five pages was occasionally acceptable. Once every ten to fourteen pages is perfect. But spotting the word two or three times on the same page? Pass the paprika please.

With regard to ratios, I considered the difference between a short story and a novel. A short is, at maximum, 10,000 words but often stands at a range of 6,000 to 8,000. The novel’s size is something just over 80,000 words (and shy of 300 pages, just the right length.) So word recycling is a bigger deal in a book— one can’t allow the reader get bored! Even if the same word is used a full 100 times (which I’ve reduced to 40 to 50 now), that’s just .1% of the overall manuscript which really isn’t that bad. The problem then is really about the literary lumpiness.

The real problem of Thesaurus Spicing is when you accidentally place an alternate word or phrase that already appears nearby. So when you modify the manuscript, you have to double check any previous queried and updated passages. The only downside is that I’m going to need to quickly skim through the entire manuscript a final time before submitting the finished product to my waiting publishers.

The end of editing came at a strange time. I heard of not one but two highly wished for titles being announced; Shenmue III and the long coveted Final Fantasy VII remake. As if Fallout 4 and Doom 4 weren’t awesome enough.

final-fantasy-vii-remakeI’ve been cynical about the possibility of a remade Final Fantasy VII before, and according to some sources so were Square-Enix’s board. Yet as I mulled on the possibility, I realized that the game only needs two things to be acceptable.

The first is a good battle system since the ATB (Active Time Battle) mechanisms of yesteryear are a touch dated for the new generation. Still if they add a “classic” battle option with ATB instead of whatever nouveau system Square-Enix conjures, they can probably satisfy old school fans as well as the fresh ranks of players. If I recall correctly, Star Ocean II did something similar.

The other requirement is faith to the original story, including the weird quirks like the brothel in Midgar and some of the side quests. Unfortunately I think that’s the one request we won’t get. Final Fantasy VII has had a number of peripheral spin-offs and additions, like Advent Children and especially Crisis Core, which shoehorn new details into the original story. I doubt the canon will remain unscathed.

But with regard to Shenmue III, it’s just so awesome that KickStarter can bring to life that which otherwise would not be. What a time to be alive.

The Home Stretch

viking-swordsYeah, I really hoped that the novel would be finished by now. But it isn’t.

I wrapped up the first draft, then proofed it. A good friend edited and returned it to me, and I improved it based on his invaluable input. After which, the draft was submitted to the beta readers and the major sponsors whose blessing I need.

And yes, they’ve provided their feedback.

A few canonical corrections are needed, and some improvements to the logic. But there are no more bottlenecks, so any delays are entirely my own. This would be the third round of editing. I guess I dread the possibility of a fourth round, as there will be at least one final party (beyond those already mentioned) who needs to provide approval before my work goes to print.

Is an author’s first novel always the hardest? The entire process has been a learning experience, and although I was able to apply a great deal of the hard earned experience from my previous anthologies, there was plenty of new lessons, new discoveries, and new stumbling blocks.

I have a rule that I don’t read the blogs of other, more established authors unless they’re a carefully cultivated platform for advising authors, like Anne R. Allen. There are two reasons for this. First, I don’t want their views to spoil my enjoyment of their work. And second, some of them cruelly and intentionally make the process sound more difficult if not impossible, to ward away competition.

But now I wonder if perhaps they could have warned me how hard being a writer can be, or perhaps provided valuable tips to help. I want the emotional explanations, wisdom and the insights they gained without ranting or venting frustrations or being put down for “threatening” their position. It has made me more thankful towards the few authors I’ve grown to view as mentors, and the handful of my writing friends I’ve picked up along the way.

So I intend to have the third and hopefully final draft complete by June 6th, and refuse to post another blog entry until then. Even this post was written on Friday and programmed for release today, just to provide some news and explain my upcoming silence. That is how badly I need to put off further distractions.

June 6th also happens to be the day I can start drinking again. You can guess how I’m going to celebrate once I’m finished.

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

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The following is an extensive review of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Because of this, spoilers are guaranteed, so turn away if you don’t want it ruined for you.

The Avengers came out in 2012, and swiftly rose to become the third highest grossing movie of all time. It was critically well received too, scoring 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, this set very high expectations for the sequel, Avengers: Age of Ultron, again to be directed and written by Joss Whedon. (Note: The first installment also gave writing credit to Zak Penn, but that was not the case here.)

But Age of Ultron hasn’t had quite the same success. The movie seemed to have fallen short of financial analysts’ expectations, likely due to the Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather fight, although it seems that it is catching up for lost time. And the critics were somewhat less forgiving of the movie too, which hovers around the 75% mark.

Comparing the latest to the original, Age of Ultron didn’t have some of the advantages the first one did. There was a tremendous amount of hype caused by five prequel films that established and developed the “core four” characters; Thor, Hulk, Iron Man and Captain America. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) was tacked onto a couple of the movies, and while not totally developed then, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) was introduced in Iron Man 2 while Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) got winked at in Thor. Even the villain Loki (Tom Hiddleston) was pre-established.

As one can see, the stars for the first film were in alignment. No new characters were introduced. But the second Avengers movie differed greatly in this regard. It was larger in scope, introducing no less than four major characters and some fresh supporting cast, including arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (portrayed by Andy Serkis) who loses an arm to Ultron, likely setting the stage to become Klaw for Marvel’s Black Panther. The Avengers travel the world, and even deal with some political fall out for their actions. But while the first was fun and light, the sequel was considerably darker in tone in contrast to the first installment…

Age of Ultron


Characters

Characters have always been Director Whedon’s strength, and in Age of Ultron the old crew continue to shine. Early, we get a few great jokes and rib poking between the crew. From Tony Stark’s (Robert Downey Jr.) shock of being warned about foul language by Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) to the party jests and friendly vibes, the good times are great and enjoyable for all to watch, however short they last.

Four new and major characters share screen time in Age of Ultron. The first two were the fraternal twins, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff, better known as Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch and played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and the talented Elizabeth Olsen respectively. The siblings held Tony Stark in contempt, after almost losing their lives to the weaponry his company built. The integration of Stark Enterprises in this manner is an excellent reminder about Tony’s past and how, despite his efforts to become a good guy, he still has plenty for which to atone. The twins are so interconnected that they’re effectively one character. While Pietro’s abilities prove to be a handful for the Avengers to deal with on their own during the fight scenes, Wanda’s telepathic abilities force dreams upon the main characters, paving the story telling path for the audience.

The results of this range from decent and important, to faulted. On the plus side, Tony Stark’s vision of the Avengers defeat sets the stage for the creation of Ultron, Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) dream lead the Avengers to knowledge of the Infinity Stones (although the later bath scene was disjointedly added) and whatever Banner (Mark Ruffalo) saw led to an impressive show down between himself and Hulkbuster Iron Man. On the downside, Steve Roger’s continued affection for Peggy Carter didn’t really reveal anything new about him, and the discoveries about Natasha Romanoff seemed to cast a darker element without the payoff of insight that drives the plot.

UltronThen there was the troubling Ultron. Created by Stark to be the defender of earth, the protection they needed after the attack on New York in the first movie, Ultron’s construction makes complete sense. But while the origin story is effective and James Spader lends a particular charm to the antagonist, his motivation is weak.

During Ultron’s awakening, Jarvis’ attempts to welcome Ultron into existence sends our villain to read up on human history and immediately decides the human race must be removed to fulfill his objective. If the intention for his motivation was a logical assertion that humanity must be destroyed to protect the earth, then Ultron’s well developed understanding of sarcasm is rather inexplicable.

On that note, there was one phrase Ultron used to almost mock comic book movie tropes. When the Avengers meet Ultron in Ulysses Klaue’s hideout, Stark asks about Ultron’s intentions. “I’m glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan,” Ultron replies and starts the fight. Two problems dog this line. First, while the villainous monologue is cliche and perhaps lazy, Ultron’s zeal remained under developed on the screen, and the tired trope would have been more effective than nothing.

The second problem is correlated, and wouldn’t exist had it not been for a line by Hawkeye towards the end of the film. During a tense moment, Clint tries to connect with the audience with the lines , “The city is flying! We’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow! None of this makes any sense!” But the statement effectively broke the fourth wall, and risked jarring the viewers out of the moment entirely, right at the film’s climax. The two lines build a case that perhaps Joss Whedon’s frustrations with Marvel were finding their way into the script, and risked harming the finished piece.

Among those grievances, Whedon also wanted to cast more characters including Spider Man and Captain Marvel. But the ensemble cast was already quite filled out and there was still one more to add; Vision, portrayed by Jarvis’ voice actor Paul Bettany. Created by a union of Jarvis, the Mind Infinity Stone and an android body made of Vibranium, Vision is a truly last minute addition to the Avengers who somehow manages to completely gain their trust with a two minute long talk, the results of which were slapdash and required a considerable suspension of belief to accept. To add anyone else is simply too much.


Relationships

hulk-blackwidowOne theme constantly explored in Age of Ultron is love interests. All of the core Avengers got a nod of some kind; Tony and Thor had an gentle ego driven face-off about their girls, Pepper Potts and Jane, at the celebratory party. During a hallucination brought on by the Scarlet Witch’s powers, Steve Rogers recalled Peggy Carter.

Best of all, Mr. Whedon invested a healthy dose of screen time establishing Barton/Hawkeye and his budding family. As there are no immediate plans to schedule Hawkeye for his own movie, to see him receive his due here makes one cheer for the little guy.

But then there is the big guy and a certain Ms. Widow.

The budding relationship between Romanoff and Banner (Mark Ruffalo) was not a highlight of the movie. It’s not that the relationship itself wouldn’t work; the characters had chemistry and weren’t without possibility. It was interesting to see Romanoff more vulnerable, such that even the bonhomie Captain acknowledged her attraction with a nod to their time together in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

But fans who saw The Incredible Hulk know of Bruce’s involvement with Betty Ross (then played by Liv Tyler). While some defenders of the move may rush to deny correlation between that Hulk movie and the current Avengers, they may forget the final, after credits scene where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) makes a brief appearance to speak with General Ross about the Avengers initiative.

Age of Ultron turned its back on that, and Betty went unmentioned. While it’s not hard to imagine Tony returning to his old ways perhaps, or the boisterous Thor acting without thinking, the introverted Dr. Banner is difficult to see as the philandering type. While everyone can relate to Banner’s loneliness, the absence of guilt isn’t becoming of the good doctor. At the very least, some acknowledgement of his former relationship would have helped. At most, some closure to connect the two movies in the greater continuum.

hulkbusterBut neither was offered, and the issue was compounded by a tongue-in-cheek jest calling the Hulk Buster armor “Veronica,” in reference to the love triangle of Archie Comics. Ignoring Bruce’s previous love life results in incoherent story telling, and feels as though it clashes with the dozen-movie strong universe.


The Verdict

After seeing The Avengers, one’s first instinct is often just to watch it again. To relish the fun and charm of these unlikely superheroes bickering and prodding one another until they realize just how high the stakes really are and banding together to save the world. It didn’t need dark and gritty.

Avengers: Age of Ultron however is something of a mess. It’s enjoyable for turning the brain off for two hours, but the fun doesn’t cling to the audience afterwards. The focus and Easter-eggs seem to rush into preparing the stage for a bigger battle, rather than focusing on the one at hand. Too many new characters are introduced, and trying to divide the time amongst them all equally proved to be a burden. While worth watching, Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t the cause for celebration we had hoped it would be.

At least Daredevil was amazing this year.

Laying Off the Alcohol

Today I begin my new job. But last week, a lot of little things have been going on. Among events in my life, I got comments back for my first novel and began work yesterday, giving it a final once over and correcting canon concerns. I’m trying to have the final draft ready no later than a month. I also have a critical review of Avengers: Age of Ultron that I’m tinkering with.

giLiverGrayBB1085Finally, I’m giving up drinking for a month.

I don’t really have any substance abuse problems. But I am heavy drinker, and there’s a fine line between that and being an alcoholic. Given good reason, I’ll abstain. But when I have a green flag to drink, I tend to consume a great deal, which has become an insidiously bad habit. I’ve been hearing some about what happens when a person stops drinking for about a month and I think the biggest attraction has to be the ease of getting sleep, as rest hasn’t been coming to me very easily since I moved.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about the situations that lead me to the bottle, and it really depends on the people with whom I’m spending time. With most coworkers, I usually cap out at a reasonable two drinks. Strangers, usually just one unless we hit it off. But with my closer friends, there often isn’t much of a limit, and four or even five drinks can come and go in the blink of a few hours. This can sound alarming, but one of the things that enabled me was my proximity to home; I walked or took the metro, and never drove.

My new place in Virginia is a great reason to try abstinence for a while. But this does leave me to wonder about how my writing will be effected. Word craft and alcohol frequently go hand in hand, probably because story telling and being social are somewhat correlated. I do suspect that drinking and writing does make the author more prone to making literary mistakes both small (typos, grammar) and large (cliche approaches, less impressive improvisation) but it can help us get over the “writing hump” of actually putting words on the page.

At least my latest writing projects are primarily editing and proofing based, of which I’m fairly certain that not being inebriated is ideal. I’ll have to try and remember to jot down my feelings on it once we hit June.

Penny Dreadful Season 1 Review

This review is spoiler free.

Vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein’s creature… it’s not original to suggest these monsters unite in some shape or form. There have already been several such crossovers, in games like Castlevania or in movies such as The Monster Squad. But John Logan and Showtime have decided instead to revisit these old themes in the era of adult television. And when the word is out about the quality of the show and the depths of the story telling, fans of classic movie monsters will come running to catch horror drama Penny Dreadful, currently in its second season.

Much like True Detective, Penny Dreadful pays homage to an entire genre of writing, even in the name “penny dreadful” which references cheap literature from the Victorian times. The show slithers and scuttles, prodding the psychological as well as biological and bodily in disgusts. There is no kind of horror it will not blend into its well crafted amalgamation.

Set in London, 1891, Penny Dreadful combines not just the aforementioned monsters but their stories and source material into one very large universe that overlaps, though not rushing to do so. The main plot revolves around Grand Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton) who lost his son in Africa and returns to find his daughter Mina missing, presumably abducted by vampires.

With considerable income and influence at his disposal, Malcolm employs several enigmatic characters, including spiritual medium Vanessa Ives (Eva Green), American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh Hartnett) and the physician Victor Frankenstein (Harry Treadaway). But where as each of these characters have their own reasons and secrets for siding with Sir Murray, their personal histories force them to keep each other at arm’s length. Today’s allies could easily become tomorrow’s problems. Thus the first season maybe the beginning of their alliance, it is far from the start of the story.

Penny-Dreadful-VampireSeveral works are referenced, such as Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, The Exorcist and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. Of these, Frankenstein’s plot thread is uniquely both the most faithful, and yet the most surprising in its twists, as it also borrows a trait or two from The Phantom of the Opera.

Despite this, there are very slight changes to the rules. For example, vampires come in two varieties; the infected slaves, with red eyes and white hair, and the masters who have rodent like features, and are utterly incapable of hiding in plain sight. Penny Dreadful isn’t afraid to put its own slight spin on the monsters fans hold so near and dear, but not so much as to push its audience away with alienating revisionism.

The show’s greatest blessing and curse is the reluctance to use computer generated effects for its characters. While this makes the monsters truly look incredible, I fear that there are certain elements which could be held in check… the full visual effect weakened. It remains to be seen in future seasons if this rule is broken or if John Logan can bring dazzling, classical movie magic to the small screen.

Another aspect that sets Penny Dreadful apart from so many other shows is its plentiful yet very mature approach to sexuality. The screenwriters seemed to know and fully understand that sex is not without consequences, which manifests in strong plot twists and revelations about the nature of the characters, even if it takes a few episodes for the effects to be felt. Hedonist Dorian Gray (Reeve Carney) seems to be the central force in this, as his antics naively damage those about him despite his total amicability to the protagonists.

proteusThe first season was eight episodes long, each being an hour apiece, and the characters were very well developed and portrayed. But my only complaint about Penny Dreadful lies not in the quality of this but in the balance. The show tended to overload the audience with disproportionate personal development, and very little rotation. Victor Frankenstein gets almost two or three episodes of back story in a row, followed by Vanessa Ives.

The problems these character have are so extensive, they both require a third of the entire season just to stabilize. And while the show faithfully rewards its viewership for their patience, it can benefit from being more even.

But one weakness does not a bad show make, especially one as much fun as this. Catch Penny Dreadful on Showtime on Sundays, and check out the first season on Netflix DVD.

The Art of Sincere Flattery

My life is somewhat rough right now. I am moving tomorrow, am waiting to hear back about a position I applied to weeks ago, and am currently ill. I don’t even known if it’s a cold or allergies, but my swollen sinuses have kept me from needed sleep last night.

However, I wanted a quick break from packing. And a discussion worthy thought came to me a few moments ago.

ENSo my friends and I have been discussing certain coming projects and the latest entertainment releases. The UK got to see Avengers: Age of Ultron before the United States did, and I’m thankful for those across the pond who haven’t mentioned any spoilers yet. One of my chums, Alec McQuay, saw the recent release of his novel Emily Nation, which is worth a glance if you’ve time.

Now I’ve been scratching my head, trying to remember who reminded me during our conversations. But someone caused me to recall this peculiar behavior a select few established authors engage in… where they do not read fiction.

In my time, I’ve only come across a single author who publicly admitted to disliking reading novels, despite writing them. This is not to say that this author does not read; they do. But they tend to stick to non-fiction, and there is fair merit to that. It’s easy to forget that scriveners like Robert E. Howard and living legend George R.R. Martin borrowed from the pages of history to spice their work.

Now… this has led me to ponder a few of my own approaches of input versus output in literature. Personally, I enjoy reading creative tales and novels. I tend towards a fairly eclectic blend of genres. In the vein of high fantasy or swords-and-sorcery I have read all the original Conan works from Howard, and everything available from Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Chronicles of Prydain a long time ago.

In the grand scheme of readership, this really isn’t much. I’ve never read anything by Terry Pratchett nor R.A. Salvatore. The first four books of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series rest on my bookshelf, still awaiting my eyes. A Wizard of Earthsea is the only piece amongst the works of Ursula K. Le Guin I’ve finished, and I barely remember it. Scott Lynch had my attention for The Lies of Locke Lamora but I haven’t invested in the rest of his series. The majority of my fantasy reading has actually been in the works of the Black Library’s Warhammer fantasy universe, and those are usually light and often polished off in a weekend. There are probably a dozen other fantasy authors who have at least one story worth studying, but I haven’t found the time yet.

I mention this because, as of late, I have been penning and finishing a growing number of fantasy pieces. It’s part of my efforts to become a “full stack” author, who moves from genre to genre to learn what they can. Perhaps even combining these types, creating new tales from the union. As I’ve set horror down for the time being, fantasy has become my newest focus.

I’ve had successes in horror, some of which are still on going. But I haven’t quite had that one breakout success with fantasy. I feel as though I’m closing in on it but… time will tell. What makes me curious is that compared to fantasy, I’ve read very little horror. I’ve seen many horror films, and the visuals have stuck with me. But not much in the way of reading.

Part of me wonders if the act of “researching” a writing market by reading successes within it kind of poisons the well. On one hand, it does inform the author as to what has already been done before, yet at the same time, can it make us prone to fearing innovation?

About a year back, I was very proud of a tale I wrote. It was swords and sorcery meets Indus Valley Civilization, the area that was proto-India. Compared to European inspired fantasy, there is a tremendous amount of cultural differences to communicate. There was the caste system. There were the different kinds of weapons which we see as exotic, and they see as normal. They have their own pantheon of gods. It’s easy for us to take knowledge of Zeus or Thor for granted, but gods like Agni or Indra may require a little prefacing in English speaking markets.

I was very proud of this story. I still am despite its rejection, if for no other reason than the sheer scholarly effort to try and… just widen the door a crack, hoping for something inspired. I’ve read articles and blog posts about people who are a little tired of European centric tales and I kind of see their point. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just that there is so much of it.

Maybe I’ll dust that story off and try again someday, and I’m hoping the wheel is finally turning a little. And if you’re one of those types seeking something new and inspired, try Emily Nation by McQuay.

For me however… back to work.